The world, the flesh, and the Devil–sources of temptation

posted in: Prayer and Virtue | 5
An Angel and a Devil Fighting for the Soul of a Child by Gimignani (Wikimedia Commons).

Why are we tempted to sin? How can we know when a thought is simply a temptation and when we actually consent to sin? How should we avoid and resist temptation? I’d like to explore these questions over several blog posts, starting with the sources of temptation. Traditionally, the three sources are called the world, the flesh, and the Devil.

The Devil is real and active

All temptation began with the Devil. Before God created the material world, He created the spiritual world, including angels and archangels. God gave angels and archangels a chance to choose to obey or disobey Him. Lucifer led a third of the angels and archangels to rebel against God. Lucifer was transformed into the Devil (Satan). His followers became demons.

After God made man, the Devil tempted Adam and Eve. Hating God, he also hated creatures made in God’s image. Although he cannot experience real joy, he takes a perverse pleasure in seeing man turn away from God.

Fr. Jordan Aumann, O.P., in his modern classic Spiritual Theology, cautions us against entering into conversation with the Devil. When the Devil tempts us, we should turn aside to some other activity. Arguing with the tempter only causes trouble. The Devil will twist God’s words. He will lie to and deceive us. He will try to trap us. He is smarter and more powerful than we are on our own.

Sometimes it seems that the Devil is completely ignoring us. We need to be careful not to grow lax. We should use these intervals for prayer, and perhaps fasting. When the Devil leaves us alone, it is never because he is indifferent to our salvation. He is only biding his time and making ready for another attack.

The world also entices us

When we speak of the world in the spiritual life, we don’t mean the created world. Rather, we mean the culture in which we live, especially the culture of unredeemed man. We say that consecrated religious leave the world. Obviously, they still live on earth. They cut themselves off from the culture of unredeemed man to a certain extent. This is especially true of monks, hermits, and cloistered nuns. The rest of us remain in the world. We have to strive daily against it.

Since the world has not submitted to Christ and His reign, it idolizes creation. The world takes the good things God created for the purpose of revealing Himself to us, and turns them into idols. The world entices us to become attached to creatures and creature comforts.  It thrives on pleasure.

Worldly people often ridicule those who are trying to follow God. They persecute believers. Our fear of rejection and of suffering can tempt us to join the crowd and give in to sin.

The best way to avoid being tempted by the world is to avoid the near occasions of sin. Some people might be easily swayed by their peers. They must choose friends and acquaintances carefully. Others need to stay away from certain places where the pull of the culture is too strong for them, such as bars. Still others might find certain jobs tempt them to give in to the world. They may have to avoid getting involved in political campaigns or working for companies that promote greed.

The flesh never leaves us alone

Unlike the world and the Devil, which we can run away from to a certain extent, the flesh is always with us. We can’t get away from it, but we can tame it. I wrote in detail about battling against oneself recently.

Original Sin left us with concupiscence. Concupiscence is our love for pleasure. It causes us to shrink from suffering. Since our strongest natural desires are for preserving our lives and passing life on to others, we tend to cling to food, drink, and sex.

Obviously, eating, drinking, and the marital act are not evil in themselves. But when we overindulge in them, or seek them for their own sake, we make ourselves vulnerable to temptation. Fasting strengthens us both physically and spiritually. Abstaining from marital relations can also help us keep them rightly ordered. We should never push these pleasures to the limit. To do so is to risk losing control of our appetites.

The world, the flesh, and the Devil war against the life of grace within us. But all three of them together cannot begin to compare with the power of Christ. We can triumph over temptation with His help.

In  a future post, we’ll look at how to behave in the midst of temptation.

Connie Rossini

Share with us: What places or activities do you avoid in order to avoid the near occasions of sin? Do you battle more against the Devil or the world?

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Hi, I'm a Catholic writer and homeschool mother of four boys. I practice Carmelite spirituality. Check out my Books page for publications to help your whole family grow in holiness.

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5 Responses

  1. Cheryl C.

    This is sobering to be reminded of the power and cleverness of the devil. Yet, it also allows one to see the distinction of choices: rely on God’s power when we are weak against our adversary, or struggle with the one who tempts and ensnares in a battle with no armor.

  2. Lori Sautter

    I feel like the devil picks on me quite a lot. I would love God to send him to Mars!

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